The story of Retronator
A Medium Introduction
My name is Matej Jan, but you can call me Retro!
For the last 5 years I’ve been running Retronator, a blog about pixel art, gaming and saturated colors. In fact, today is its very 5th birthday!
For this occasion, I would like to introduce myself to you, readers of the wonderful platform that is Medium.
In all honesty, a shorter version of this introduction was written as the first article of Retronator Magazine as it began its way on Stampsy, shortly before I switched to Medium. But forget I told you that! I’ll pretend I’m saying this for the first time, just like when I was a teaching asistant with two groups of students, repeating my lecture the second time with matching enthusiasm. Anyway …
This is me:
In the background on the right you can see one of my pixel-art works, an isometric piece called Tribute.
Retronator started in 2010 as a personal blog of mine, but over the years evolved into both a place for my art as well as features of outstanding artworks from the community.
If you like Tumblr as much as Medium, you can find my little place I call home at retronator.com.
Tumblr is great and I owe it all my initial recognition, but I’ve been longing to do more magazine-style articles with text and images intertwined to form a visual story. By taking the liberty to (mis)use Medium’s image embedding capabilities, I’ve made myself a very delighting home here as well.
Since it’s Retronator’s birthday, I feel you wouldn’t mind if I share my own artworks that I’ve created over the years. Like an autobiographical Retronator Artist Feature. Sort of. Here we go.
Although my Internet presence took off with the Tribute piece above, my love of pixel art, gaming and saturated colors started with this little computer, the ZX Spectrum:
If you’re cool, you’ll pronounce it ZED EX Spectrum. It’s a British computer from the 80s, 1982 to be specific.
My father bought the Plus model (of which I am yet to do an illustration) in 1986 when I was 2 years old. If you do the math, that makes me 31 right now.
For those of you from the US, you’ll more likely know this next computer, the Commodore 64:
The Spectrum and C64 were huge rivals in their time and this was the closest to console wars we got to experience in Europe (I’m from Slovenia, by the way).
The significance of ZX Spectrum for my art is huge! It had only 8 colors (in 2 different levels of brightness), all of which were saturated to the max! Furthermore, it had a limitation of only allowing 2 colors (attributes) per each 8×8 square. It’s such a ridiculous constraint by today’s standards, but it produced a trademark style of blocky colors A.K.A. attribute clash.
I’ve done a few pieces that use this strict graphic mode so far and there are more coming in the future!
The last piece on the left introduces another reoccurring theme in my art, the Lotus Esprit Turbo. It’s another British invention. You might know the Lotus brand from Formula 1 or the Elise sports car. Esprit was Lotus’s popular model in the 80s.
Turbo Esprit was one of the best games for the ZX Spectrum. It featured driving through a 3D city that easily makes it an eighties predecessor of Grand Theft Auto (if I’m not mistaken, DMA Design a.k.a. Rockstar North even quoted it as direct inspiration). I played the game on many weekend afternoons as a kid and it cemented my fascination with the obnoxious sports car. Trivia: Elon Musk owns the ‘Wet Nellie’ submarine version from James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
The result is, I could draw this car until infinity.
It’s a small obsession of mine. You’ll find it in Tribute too and future pieces, I promise.
The second image above (top-right) is based on the car sprite from another legendary game, Lotus: The Ultimate Challenge for DOS (it’s the third in the series of Lotus games for the Amiga and other systems).
Here’s Tribute again, this time as it was back in 2005 when I made the initial base for a cover of the magazine Joker that I wrote for.
One month after its release, I removed the title and made the cover into a poster (but not yet as detailed as the final 2012 version). Here’s the biggest addition to the artwork, the X-wing:
Joker is why most people in Slovenia’s gaming scene know me as Retro. It was my pen name, as all Joker authors had to pick a pseudonym. My love of old games and retro gaming defined mine.
I was writing for the magazine in my student years while earning a Computer Science degree. I never went to art school, but always did illustration on the side. As I ventured more into CS though, I did less and less drawing.
Somewhere near my senior year of college I switched my job from Joker to a company that would be later known as Dawn of Play. I always wanted to be a game developer and it was there that I worked on my first two commercial games, Monkey Labour and Dream of Pixels, as the lead programer.
Joining Razum, the parent company of Dawn of Play, was also my first step back to pixel art. When New Year came around, I illustrated their greeting card.
Unfortunately I didn’t do much more until I graduated in 2011.
In a weird plot twist, the place where I printed my Master’s thesis awarded printing credit for each person you referred. Two friends ended up using the same print shop and with my new-found credit I decided to print my isometric poster on canvas — after filling it with details of new things that inspired me since then. That’s how Tribute got (re)born in 2012.
The canvas prints came out great! I did a couple for my friends and eventually started taking general orders. In the end I sold around 40 of them and sent them out into the wide world.
Selling my first work was a big milestone. I used the proceeds to pay for an online art class so all the funds were reinvested into improving my art.
I should note that at this point I also did a lot of traditional and digital drawing and painting. My art path made full circle to my high school roots, the time when I first started digitally coloring my pencil drawings in Photoshop.
Over time, my pixel and non-pixel art started clashing too much as I struggled to decide what direction to take with Retronator. I felt like a huge Katamari Damacy ball with all the different things I posted on my tumblr.
At that point I decided to create my personal art blog (which you can find here) and focus Retronator solely on pixel art. Additionally, Retronator wasn’t my alter ego any more, but a dedicated place to feature artwork and pixel art games from the community.
With new found focus and stream of well curated posts, Retronator kept on getting bigger. From zero people 5 years ago, the blog is now one of the best pixel art places on Tumblr with over 10,000 followers.
I’m truly grateful for that because it motivates me to focus more on my pixel art too.
The USA flag marks the year when I left Europe and moved to California. I’ve been living in Berkeley for 2.5 years now and in all this time I haven’t been back home. Right now, though, I’m writing this from a back row seat of a plane on my way to Slovenia.
In my time in the US I’ve finished two new bigger pieces. First one was Pixel China Mountains, a fan art piece of Marta Nael’s magnificent painting China Mountains, for her artbook contest.
I even animated it and made a parallax version, which you can see here.
The second bigger piece was ZX Cosmopolis from the ZX Spectrum section above. I started working on that piece back in 2008, left it alone for months, did a couple skyscrapers, left it again and so on until it was finally finished last year.
I printed both of them on canvas recently and I’m delighted to have them on my wall … for now.
My latest work in progress is a new big isometric piece (technically trimetric this time) loaded with ZX Spectrum game references.
Another is a series of portraits for the game Courier of the Crypts.
And that’s it for my brief role in the pixel art world.
Even though Retronator (the blog) is 5 years old, I feel like it’s at the very beginning of its path and I’m just begining to do really great things with it. In the future, a lot of them will come to life in the context of my upcoming project, Pixel Art Academy.
Writing longer articles for Retronator Magazine will certainly be a big part from now on too. I love the design I can achieve on Medium and I’m delighted to transition from a long-time reader to also being a writer.
Thank you so much for the warm welcome so far and I hope you will enjoy the journey with me.
Till next time!